Over the Top and Don't Cop It!: World War I Slang

MILITARY

Nathan Chandler

5 Min Quiz

World War I is legendary for its awful trench warfare. The area between opposing trenches was called what?

Machine guns and artillery cut down swaths of men unfortunate enough to charge through "no man's land," the deadly strips of land between opposing trenches.

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If you were in the trenches, you definitely wanted a "perisher."

"Perisher" referred to periscopes, which were common tools. Without a periscope, enemy gunners could shoot you in the head the second you emerged from a trench.

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What was a "basket case"?

A basket case was a soldier who was so badly hurt that he had to be carried from the front lines, often in a basket-type contraption. Many of these men were missing one or more limbs.

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What did it mean if a soldier "scarpered"?

If the men in your platoon abandoned their guns and ran away, they "scarpered." This activity was obviously not a favorite of generals.

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What was a common term for German soldiers?

German soldiers donned squarish helmets during World War I. The unique helmets earned them the nickname "squareheads."

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To what did "cooties" refer?

Lice were mind-bogglingly common in the trenches. Many soldiers suffered from "cooties" during endless months of fighting, a fact that made the war even more miserable.

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Why would soldiers "get their wind up"?

If you "got your wind up" it was probably because you were about to get into a fight. It meant that you were nervous or perhaps downright scared.

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What's one reason an officer might "come unstuck"?

The French word "degommer" was used to described unsuitable officers who were dismissed from their posts. English-speaking soldiers warped "degommer" into "come ungummed" and then "come unstuck."

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Why would you "dekko" something?

British troops borrowed the term "dekko" from Hindus in India, for many years a colonial state of the English. If you want to "dekko" something, it means you want to see it.

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"Tommy" was a slang term for soldiers from which country?

English soldiers were often called "Tommies." It came from the fact that official recruitment papers used the name "Tommy Atkins" as an example name.

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What did it mean when Allied soldiers "went West"?

If you "went West," it meant you were going home. But you weren't going home alive -- you were in a casket.

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If your gun was "knocked off," what happened to it?

If someone knocked off your gun, it meant that they stole it from you. Thievery was a common problem when supplies were scarce.

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"Crump-holes" were made by what?

Many World War I battlefields were littered with huge blast holes caused by artillery shells. Soldiers called them "crump-holes," and they were a visual reminder of the war's destructive power.

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What were "poodlefakers" mostly fascinated with?

Poodlefakers were vain soldiers who were very interested in their own looks -- and also how their appearance might lure in women.

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The term "snapshot" referred to what?

If you took a clumsy, poorly-aimed shot at an enemy soldier, you took a "snapshot." If you had to be at the receiving end of enemy fire, you wanted them to be taking snapshots at you.

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What factor caused the spread of the word "thingamajig"?

World War I is famous for the many new (and often strange) technologies it introduced to the world. When soldiers didn't know the correct term for something, they just called it a "thingamajig."

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If you "spike-bozzled" something, you most likely destroyed what?

Some Allied soldiers used the delicious term "spike-bozzled" after destroying an enemy vehicle, most often an aircraft.

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When did soldiers use "wooden overcoats"?

No one wanted to wear wooden overcoats. It was slang for coffins.

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If you went "over the bags," where were you going?

Trenches were often topped with sandbags. If you went "over the bags," it meant you were on the attack, running straight into no-man's land.

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What was another term for corned beef, which was a common trench food?

Corned beef was sometimes called bully beef. Many cans were adorned with a graphic of a bull, a fact that contributed to the nickname.

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If you were infested with lice, you were what?

These days, feeling crummy might mean you're sick. In World War I, it meant that you were struggling in your fight against lice.

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Cigarettes were often called what?

Soldiers, most often officers, called cigarettes gaspers. You can probably imagine why.

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"Zigzag" was slang for what?

Soldiers drank alcohol whenever they could get their hands on it. When they wandered in a crooked line due to intoxication, people knew the men were drunk or "zigzag."

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It was a good thing to be on the receiving end of a "goodnight kiss."

Sometimes, snipers would pop off one last round at the end of a battle. That last shot was sometimes called a goodnight kiss.

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"Iron rations" referred to the rock-hard foods of the front lines. It also referred to what?

If you were getting iron rations from the enemy, you were experiencing incoming fire. Iron rations were neither filling … nor healthy.

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Why didn't other soldiers like guys who were "swinging the lead"?

If soldiers were "swinging the lead," they were lazy and slacking off on their duties. The term originated with the Navy.

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Who was the "third man"?

A superstition abounded in the trenches -- the third man who lighted a cigarette would be downed by a sniper. No one wanted to be the third man.

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"Barkers" was a slang term for which food?

Some soldiers suspected that low-quality Army sausages were made with dog meat. They called them "barkers."

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One type of poison gas was sometimes called what?

"Pear drops" was a term sometimes used for poison gas -- so named because the gas smelled a bit like the fruit.

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What did it mean if you "became a landowner"?

Nobody wanted to say that someone was killed in action. If you "became a landowner," it means you died in combat.

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Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

World War I brought together soldiers from all over the world into a desperate, messy fight. Out of the chaos emerged new lingo that endures to this day. How much do you know about World War I slang?

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